How Chirac found de Gaulle
After being written off as one of France's most ineffective, corrupt presidents, Jacques Chirac is at last finding a place in the history books. Hugh Schofield reports on the revived fortunes of a man who consistently bucks safe predictions.
Jacques Chirac may have incurred the wrath of Americans for presuming to challenge the US over Iraq, but his ambition of making France a voice that counts is already a resounding triumph.
Chirac's name is chanted by anti-war protesters in demonstrations from Adelaide to Cairo; diplomats scour the globe with his message of legitimacy for the United Nations; more than any other leader he can claim to speak on behalf of international public opinion.
And at home a man reviled a year ago as "superliar" because of a series of alleged corruption cover-ups is now adulated across the political spectrum, attaining a stature that still recently seemed unthinkable. Eighty percent of the public back his line on Iraq. Never has this 40-year veteran of French politics moved with such freedom or such confidence.
"After five years of doubts, what better dream could Jacques Chirac havethan this - to have the confidence of the French public. It is a real state of grace," said political commentator Jean-Michel Blier.
When the 70 year-old president revealed that his government would veto any UN resolution authorising a US-led invasion, he confirmed the thrust of this new-found sense of purpose: to make France the pillar of an alternative — non-Anglo-Saxon — international coalition.
As many commentators have noted, the idea is essentially a neo-Gaullist one — Chirac's political mentor Charles de Gaulle also sought to promote France by rivalling the US — and indeed a year into his second team of office the president appears to be activated by a similar sense of national destiny.
"Whatever the immediate future holds, Jacques Chirac has already, by crystallising the feeling of national pride, written the page that was missing from the book of his life," the conservative daily Le Figaro commented in an almost worshipful editorial.
"By defending in the name of France a multipolar world, regulated by law and governed by the United Nations in the interest of harmony between civilisations, he has laid down a marker for history. Reconciled with himself, he can finally hope that the future will recognise his legacy."
At home, the president has been helped by the utter collapse of the left, with which he was forced to "cohabitate" from 1997 during his first term of office. With his centre-right majority united in a broad new party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) — and with both parliament and presidency embarking on parallel five-year terms — Chirac is at last enjoying the extensive powers invested in him by the constitution.
His policy has been to distance himself from the day-to-day running of domestic affairs - these are entrusted to his loyal prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin - and focus instead on foreign policy. Following his massive 2002 election victory over far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Chirac has moved into a post-political mode where he can play the Gaullist role of "rassembleur", or rallier of the nation, and devote himself to elevating its status in the world.
It is a far cry from the summit meetings of the 'cohabitation' period, when Chirac was forced to sit awkwardly beside Socilaist prime minister Kionel Jospin and foreign governments struggled to interpret what was the definitive French line.
In France, the media has spent pages analysing Chirac's sudden transformation into international visionary.
Some recall the president's flirtation with the left as a young man, his well-attested interest in Oriental and African cultures, and his personal acquaintance with many Third World leaders as signs of an instinctive suspicion of western domination.
"Chirac has one idea that haunts him more and more: that a technological, modern, hyper-rich west starts stamping on the minority cultures, in which he includes Islam. He fears the resentment an American strike on Iraq will bring," observed his friend, author Denis Tillinac, writing in Le Figaro.
But for all the pride that many French people take in seeing their leader who, like de Gaulle, is the man who said "Non," there are plenty of voices warning of the high stakes that he is playing.
Basking in the glow of opinion in the developing world is one thing, but in the United States Chirac leads the "axis of weasel" and in Britain he was portrayed on the front page of the tabloid Sun newspaper recently as a worm.
By striking his blow for "multipolarity," the president has alienated the world's most powerful nation and its closest ally - as well as jeopardising perhaps the future of the United Nations as an international force and any hope of a coherent European foreign policy.
Evoking the sense of disaster deferred, French weekly news magazine Le Point concluded a profile of Chirac with a quote from one his aides, who told a joke about the man who falls from a window in a multi-storey building. At each floor he shouts: "So far so good!"